Iowa City school board moves to increase support for immigrant students and families

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After hearing comments from Iowa City residents, the Iowa City Community School Board moved forward with an effort to support and protect immigrant students and families.

Iowa City residents spoke out in favor of a resolution supporting immigrant students and families threatened by immigration enforcement during the community comment portion of the school board meeting Tuesday, Feb. 28. In a post-meeting work session, the board decided to adopt the resolution at its next meeting, Tuesday March, 28, when it will add language establishing a task force to carry out the resolution.

Community members gathered at an Iowa City Community School Board meeting Feb. 28 to speak in favor of a resolution supporting immigrant students and families in the district. — photo by Eleanore Taft

The draft resolution states that district personnel won’t ask about, record or disclose a student’s or a family member’s immigration status without parental consent, and that “any request by immigration agents for information or to access a school site shall be initially denied and immediately forwarded to the Superintendent and General Counsel for review.”

District Director of Equity and Engagement Kingsley Botchway outlined the draft of the resolution and took questions from the board during the work session. He said stress related to the fear of detention and deportation affects students’ sleep, eating habits, grades and attendance and makes them vulnerable to discrimination.

The draft of the resolution provided at the meeting references the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe, stating “no public school district has a basis to deny children access to education based on their immigration status, citing the harm it would inflict on the child and society itself, and the equal protection rights of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The resolution said immigration enforcement activities would cause severe disruption to a school’s learning environment and added that no state or federal law requires local districts to assist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Board members expressed support for the resolution.

“We’ve never had any contact with immigration [enforcement] and we want to keep it that way, but if it happens we want our staff know what to do,” Board President Chris Lynch said.

Board member Lori Roetlin questioned the brevity of the new resolution draft presented at the meeting, which had been edited from five pages to less than two.

“I see what our values are, but I don’t really see what the action steps are,” she said.

Director of Equity and Engagement Kingsley Botchway (far right) discusses the draft resolution with the Iowa City Community School Board during a work session Feb. 28. — photo by Eleanore Taft

Botchway said action steps would be identified by a task force, and the resolution is meant to be the first phase of a longer plan. He said the resolution was modeled after a similar resolution recently passed in Des Moines because everything in that resolution had been thoroughly vetted for legal compliance and can be immediately acted upon.

Ten Iowa City residents shared their reasons for supporting the resolution, including fear and uncertainty regarding immigration enforcement in the district and the positive impact a diverse student body has on education.

“I am here to ask you for my children, to see if you guys can do something about the situation, the harassment that they’re given in the classrooms,” Ana Cano, a mother of three children in the district, said.

Rafael Morataya, of the Center for Worker Justice, said his daughter has heard teachers say President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall might be a good thing, and that this does not create a good school environment.

“People are concerned about the safety in the schools because we don’t hear anything from the district,” he said, calling for additional teacher training to help students feel safe at school.

Elizabeth Rook, who leads City High’s Iowa Jobs for America’s Graduates program preparing 11th and 12th graders for the working world, said the topic of immigration and immigration enforcement has been on the minds of many of her students.

“Nearly every day since the election I’ve had students talk to me about this issue,” Rook said at the meeting.

She said some of her students are now afraid to apply at Kirkwood Community College or for free lunch because they are asked to share their social security numbers. Some students may not have a valid number, or may have used the number to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA allows some undocumented residents who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 to defer action by immigration authorities and apply for work permits.

Multiple speakers at the meeting said Trump’s rhetoric on immigration has led to uncertainty among students and families about immigration policy, what their rights are and whether they are and will continue to be safe. As the school board meeting drew to a close, Trump was completing his first address to Congress, where he stated that his administration “has answered the pleas of the American people for immigration enforcement and border security.”

“We will soon begin the construction of a great, great wall along our southern border,” he said. “As we speak tonight, we are removing gang members, drug dealers and criminals that threaten our communities and prey on our very innocent citizens.”

Later in the address, Trump said, “I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible,” and that “Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.”

The Iowa City district has made a Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Students of Undocumented and Immigrant Families document available on its website.

Roetlin said her children attend a school with a large immigrant population but she has not seen this document and asked if it had been distributed to students. Botchway said the FAQ has been shared with the district’s student and family advocates, and that he will advocate for wider distribution.

La Resistencia Iowa, an anti-Trump activist group, urges Iowans to report immigration enforcement action in their communities to (515) 996-0003.

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